Ryan Gallagher and Glenn Greenwald writing at The Intercept reveal (based on documents provided by Edward Snowden) the latest criminal scheme by the NSA and GCHQ called the TURBINE initiative that involves infecting millions of computers worldwide with malware.
Top-secret documents reveal that the National Security Agency is dramatically expanding its ability to covertly hack into computers on a mass scale by using automated systems that reduce the level of human oversight in the process.
The classified files – provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – contain new details about groundbreaking surveillance technology the agency has developed to infect potentially millions of computers worldwide with malware “implants.” The clandestine initiative enables the NSA to break into targeted computers and to siphon out data from foreign Internet and phone networks.
The covert infrastructure that supports the hacking efforts operates from the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and from eavesdropping bases in the United Kingdom and Japan. GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, appears to have played an integral role in helping to develop the implants tactic.
In some cases the NSA has masqueraded as a fake Facebook server, using the social media site as a launching pad to infect a target’s computer and exfiltrate files from a hard drive. In others, it has sent out spam emails laced with the malware, which can be tailored to covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam. The hacking systems have also enabled the NSA to launch cyberattacks by corrupting and disrupting file downloads or denying access to websites.
The implants being deployed were once reserved for a few hundred hard-to-reach targets, whose communications could not be monitored through traditional wiretaps. But the documents analyzed by The Intercept show how the NSA has aggressively accelerated its hacking initiatives in the past decade by computerizing some processes previously handled by humans. The automated system – codenamed TURBINE – is designed to “allow the current implant network to scale to large size (millions of implants) by creating a system that does automated control implants by groups instead of individually.”
The system has been in operation since 2010 and may already have infected up to 100,000 computers and uses various types of implants.
One implant, codenamed UNITEDRAKE, can be used with a variety of “plug-ins” that enable the agency to gain total control of an infected computer.
An implant plug-in named CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE, for example, is used to take over a targeted computer’s microphone and record conversations taking place near the device. Another, GUMFISH, can covertly take over a computer’s webcam and snap photographs. FOGGYBOTTOM records logs of Internet browsing histories and collects login details and passwords used to access websites and email accounts. GROK is used to log keystrokes. And SALVAGERABBIT exfiltrates data from removable flash drives that connect to an infected computer.
The implants can enable the NSA to circumvent privacy-enhancing encryption tools that are used to browse the Internet anonymously or scramble the contents of emails as they are being sent across networks. That’s because the NSA’s malware gives the agency unfettered access to a target’s computer before the user protects their communications with encryption.
This technology uses both ‘man-on-the-side’ and ‘man-in-the-middle’ techniques to infiltrate systems.
In one man-on-the-side technique, codenamed QUANTUMHAND, the agency disguises itself as a fake Facebook server. When a target attempts to log in to the social media site, the NSA transmits malicious data packets that trick the target’s computer into thinking they are being sent from the real Facebook. By concealing its malware within what looks like an ordinary Facebook page, the NSA is able to hack into the targeted computer and covertly siphon out data from its hard drive. A top-secret animation demonstrates the tactic in action.
A man-in-the-middle attack is a similar but slightly more aggressive method that can be used by the NSA to deploy its malware. It refers to a hacking technique in which the agency covertly places itself between computers as they are communicating with each other.
This allows the NSA not only to observe and redirect browsing sessions, but to modify the content of data packets that are passing between computers.
The man-in-the-middle tactic can be used, for instance, to covertly change the content of a message as it is being sent between two people, without either knowing that any change has been made by a third party. The same technique is sometimes used by criminal hackers to defraud people.
There may be those who still argue that all this is necessary to protect us from terrorists, that all-purpose excuse for government abuses. But it should be well understood that any sophisticated malware system that is developed and used by the government can just as easily be detected and adapted by those who wish to use it for either purely criminal ends or or mischief. Once you let loose this sophisticated malware and its associated delivery systems into the internet, you lose control of it.
Mikko Hypponen, an expert in malware who serves as chief research officer at the Finnish security firm F-Secure, calls the revelations “disturbing.” The NSA’s surveillance techniques, he warns, could inadvertently be undermining the security of the Internet.
“When they deploy malware on systems,” Hypponen says, “they potentially create new vulnerabilities in these systems, making them more vulnerable for attacks by third parties.”
Hypponen believes that governments could arguably justify using malware in a small number of targeted cases against adversaries. But millions of malware implants being deployed by the NSA as part of an automated process, he says, would be “out of control.”
According to Matt Blaze, a surveillance and cryptography expert at the University of Pennsylvania, it appears that the QUANTUMHAND technique is aimed at targeting specific individuals. But he expresses concerns about how it has been covertly integrated within Internet networks as part of the NSA’s automated TURBINE system.
“As soon as you put this capability in the backbone infrastructure, the software and security engineer in me says that’s terrifying,” Blaze says.
“Forget about how the NSA is intending to use it. How do we know it is working correctly and only targeting who the NSA wants? And even if it does work correctly, which is itself a really dubious assumption, how is it controlled?”
While the targets are ostensibly terrorists, they are not exclusively so. They have also been targeting system administrators at companies because those people are the gateway to other people working there and thus can be used for industrial and political espionage (as was the case with Brazilian oil companies, Belgian telecommunications companies, and government ministries worldwide) and sabotage (as was the case with Stuxnet).